Last week, I went with a group of 20 young people and visited this historical community. The UCA President, Dr Deidre Palmer, joined us in our Walking on Country experience before NYALC – the Church’s national conference for young adult leaders. We were invited to the land of the Ngarrindjeri people around the Coorong.
Before the European occupation, the Ngarrindjeri people were a nation with 18 clans sustained by their laws, traditions and education. For thousands of years, these people lived on a vast land from Cape Jervis to Swanport and extending from Swanport to Kingston. This is the land of the Murray River. The land where the river, after travelling two-and-a-half thousand kilometres, meets the Southern Ocean. This is also the land where countless birds make their annual migration, returning from the northern hemisphere to Lake Alexandrina. The life of Ngarrindjeri people is deeply rooted in this land, its waters and connected to all creatures.
Our journey began in Murray Bridge where we heard the story of how the river was carved into the land cut and shaped by Ponde the giant Murray Cod. We travelled through Tailem Bend and Meningie, arriving at our destination Narrung. Upon our arrival, Rev. Ken Sumner was waiting. He welcomed us into a newly renovated house with a continuously running air conditioning unit during a hot day. Rev. Ken was the National Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress during the 12th Assembly. He was instrumental in the formation and establishment of the revised Preamble to the Uniting Church Constitution. Now he is a senior leader in the community, mentoring the young people into leadership roles.
In the smoking ceremony, we stood before the fire, burning green leaves into perfumed smoke. In a traditional welcome ritual, local youth leader Sean Weetra called upon the spirit of the land to this sacred moment. Then, using branches, Ken and Sean spread water upon us. This act of sanctity required the visitors to leave anything negative behind. This was also the invitation to become part of the community where food was shared and the permission to hunt was given. Importantly it also conveys that you will be protected by the ancestors and part of the land whilst there, and conversely how the ancestors will watch that you are respectful of the land and her peoples.
Towards the end of the ceremony, people are invited to come forward to add branches into the fire and respond to the hospitality. Deidre stepped forward first, shook Ken’s hand and made a speech. As I went forward with my son Matthew, the ancient words of Master Confucius came to mind. “When friends come from afar, how can you not be happy!”
Three large trays of fish were caught and cleaned prior to our arrival. Ken cooked the fish and Jordan Sumner, Ken’s son, brought abundant food prepared by the community into the house. We ate and chatted, and watched the sun sink beneath the horizon and turn the sky red, and then pink. As I watched my son Matthew played with the young people, I shared some family news with Ken and the conversation moved to theology.
In the Preamble there is a paragraph that talks about the Creator God was in the land prior to the arrival of the colonisers. More importantly, the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. Here in the land, I understood what that meant, no longer an intellectual understanding, but warmth in the heart.
I remembered during the 12th Assembly, the Congress was put into a difficult position to explain “who was Jesus Christ before the missionaries’ arrival?” I worked with Ken and President Alistair Macrae to articulate a Trinitarian answer: Christ was in the beginning of creation as the second Person of the Triune God. It has taken 10 years to move this theological understanding from my head to the heart. Here I felt the same love and grace of Christ that has sustained this community over many decades of tribulation and renewal. This love for Christ had been extended to all of us through hospitality.
Australia’s dark history of annihilation and assimilation is well documented. In 1937, the Commonwealth Government held a national conference on Aboriginal affairs. It was agreed that the First Peoples ‘not of full blood’ should be absorbed or ‘assimilated’ into the wider population. Having schools established in the Aboriginal communities was a tool to achieve the end goal. In the following years, Aboriginal identity was systematically dismantled, culture was rejected, and children removed from their mothers.
At the museum in Raukkan, we saw how the community bore the brunt of these policies. In 1939, residents were gathered for an anthropological study at the Point McLeay Mission. Indigenous families were photographed, and the people were labelled with numbers. Now name and age have been added to each individual. The process of reconstructing the genealogy has become a journey of reclamation for their lost identity.
The modern history of the Ngarrindjeri is not just a story of loss, but also a resilient success. In the book Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri: the story of the lower Murray Lakes tribes, author Graham Jenkin argues a convincing case through his detailed historical research. In the past, the Ngarrindjeri people tried to do the impossible and nearly succeeded; by the wisdom of ancient culture, the people learned to exist within the introduced culture. The wisdom of culture did not disappear. In fact, the community has successfully reclaimed parts of their ancestors’ land. Like the post-exile community in the Old Testament, they returned to this beautiful country – to be healed, renewed and united.
The stained-glass window in the Raukkan church has an inscription. It says, “To the glory of God and in sacred memory who died for justice and freedom”. The window was originally installed to remember those who sacrificed their lives in the First World War. This saying is still true to the courageous and resilient people.
It was through this church that leaders came to being through struggle and prayers. Teenminnie was the much-loved female convert, John Sumner was the first Ngarrindjeri to possess his own block of land. Tooreetpane made extraordinary efforts to preserve the old culture. Over the hill from the house where David Unaipon lived, the wise man spoke the words that would be forever remembered as a lesson for the young. “As a full-blooded member of my race I think I may claim to be the first – but I hope not the last – to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imagining”. There are sacred memories in this place while history continues for justice and freedom. Since 1974, Raukkan’s affairs have been administered by the Ngarrindjeri Community Council.
On this journey, we become part of this history. It was on this Ngarrindjeri land that the video about the first Day of Mourning in the Uniting Church history was filmed. It was around the dinner tables that the Order of Service was composed for NYALC to remember the history of injustice towards the First Peoples.
In Raukkan church communion was conducted involving Deidre, Charissa and Sean. Just like the Preamble has defined, “As the Church believes God guided it into union so it believes that God is calling it to continually seek a renewal of its life as a community of First Peoples and of Second Peoples from many lands”. The group of people participated in this communion come from many different parts of Australia, representing nine different ethnic languages and cultures. In our communion with God, we are in communion with each other.
The presence of 20 young people shows the very opposite to the history - making the “other” invisible. We were welcomed into the land as who we are, culturally and linguistically diverse peoples. We broke the bread and shared the wine, indeed Christ’s suffering and sacrifice, with the First Peoples. This was a moment when I felt very proud to be a member of Uniting Church. We were not part of the dominating past, but we will be part of the shared future.
The Uniting Church has repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery (terra nuillus) that provided a legal base for colonisers to lay claims to territories uninhabited by Christians. The Preamble recognises that this is Not uninhabited land; indeed, God was in this land with the First Peoples for tens and thousands of years. Last year, the UCA Assembly has recognised the First Peoples as sovereign in the lands and waters of Australia.
Walking on Country has made us realise that multiculturalism has already been in existence. It has been lived by different clans, among them, 250 aboriginal languages were spoken. They are able to coexist as the many and varied identities have been shaped by their geographic locations, and the people’s capacity to listen to the spirit of creation.
One evening we watched a video called “The Ngurunderi Dreaming” (see attached). The dream began with the spiritual giant Ngurunderi travelling on the Murray River in his canoe, searching for his two wives. On the way he widened the Murray River, turning the giant Murray Cod into many species of fish. When he smelt the fish forbidden to cook, he knew his wives were close. He pursued them to different locations of the Coorong, travelled as far as Kingston, turned his earthly canoe into the Milky Way. He killed the sorcerer Parampari and burnt his body in a great fire.
The sacrifice did not end Ngurunderi’s search, and he crossed the Murray Mouth. He fished at Port Elliot and threw his spear into the sea, creating the islands at Victor Harbour. Finally, he heard his wives playing in the water near King's Beach. They quickly fled along the beach in terror until they reached Cape Jervis. When the two women wanted to cross to Kangaroo Island, Ngurunderi called out in a voice of thunder for the waters to rise. The women were soon drowned and became the rocky Pages Islands. The final act of sacrifice was Ngurunderi himself. He dived in the sea and he rose to heaven becoming a star dwelling in the Milky Way.
“What do you think of the story?” Ken guided our minds back to reflection. One young woman asked: “Why did he go after his wives?” But there was no answer.
My first reaction is that the spirit of the land, like Ngurunderi, can talk to us. This dream connects people with the lands and waters through a story of searching and sacrifice, pain and hope, creation and separation. At the end, his own sacrifice opens the pathway for others to enter another realm. This is a story about the land and the people; for the two are inwardly connected. This is not a fairy tale, but rather a discernment. The gods, the animals, community laws, passion, sacrifice and redemption are all woven together with the references to the geographic locations where the spirit governs. We are still part of this story in the making.
The history of Ngarrindjeri people was written by anthropologists from Western perspectives. This dream is an example of how the First Peoples begin to tell their version of who they are from ancient days. The key is, as Ken explained, “we the First Peoples need to hold the pen in our own hands”.
The challenge for theology is to recognise that our experiences with the lands and waters is a source of theology. A story of such that it can free our minds from the weight of our own assumptions. Protestant theology has a weak link between the doctrine of Creation and the doctrine of the Spirit. In hearing this story, I recall a pearl of ancient wisdom; Theology is about listening to God. It begins with wonder and ends with the realisation that Alpha is Omega. The Spirit of the Creator and the spirit of creation are connected.
Next day, we travelled to locations mentioned in that dream. At the end, we returned to Raukkan. As we stood on the mountain overlooking Lake Alexandrina, Ken pointed his hand to the other side: “On your right side, there is the sacred ground when boys are turned into men”. “See the line at the edge of the lake and the South Ocean? This is a manmade structure to keep the water inside the lake… now the water is turning green and undrinkable”. “On your left side, over these green patches of land, this is another sacred ground where our ancestors rest in peace”.
I was silent. And I listened to Ken’s stories. Looking at the magnificent view from horizon to horizon, I looked at him and said, “the land is alive”. I began to understand the dream story, “all things are interconnected”. Just like the dream, nature should be experienced, rather interpreted.
In my Chinese culture, there is another creation story. The Dao became one, one became two, two became three, from three came ten thousand things. From one cosmic potency, two forces were created. The interplay of Yin and Yang generated the three, which unites lives and gives birth to the myriad of things. The story about creation is never just about the external world; it is also our relationship with the rest of the world.
Thank you, Ken, Sean, Jordan and the whole Raukkan community for your hospitality. This Walking on Country has stamped a permanent mark of hope - in the depth of my soul. Please forgive me for any imperfections of my pen in writing this reflection. Thank you, all the young people and Deidre, for being on this life-changing journey.
May the Lord bless you all.
Appendix: The Ngurunderi Dreaming
The Ngurunderi travelled own the Murray River in his canoe, in search of his two wives. Ponde, a giant codfish swam ahead of Ngurunderi, widening the river with sweeps of its tail. Ngurunderi chased the fish, trying to spear it from his canoe. Near Murray Bridge, he threw a spear, but missed and was changed into Long Island (Lenteilin). At Tailem Bend (Tagalang) he threw another; the giant fish surged ahead and created a long straight stretch in the river.
At last, with the help of Nepele (the brother of Ngurunderi's wives), Ponde was speared after it had left the Murray River and had swum into Lake Alexandrina. Ngurunderi divided the fish with his stone knife and created a new species of fish from each piece.
Meanwhile, Ngurunderi's two wives (the sisters of Nepele) had made camp. On their campfire they were cooking bony bream, a fish forbidden to the Ngarrindjeri women. Ngurunderi smelt the fish cooking and knew his wives were close. He abandoned his camp and came after them. His huts became two hills and his bark canoe became the Milky Way.
Hearing Ngurunderi coming, his wives just had time to build a raft of reeds and grass-trees and to escape across Lake Albert. On the other side their raft turned back into the reeds and grass-trees. The women hurried south. Ngurunderi followed his wives as far south as Kingston. Here he met a great sorcerer, Parampari. The two men fought, using weapons and magic powers, until eventually Ngurunderi won. He burnt Parampari's body in a huge fire, symbolised by granite boulders today, and turned north along the Coorong beach. Here he camped several times, digging soaks in the sand for fresh water, and fishing in the Coorong lagoon.
Ngurunderi made his way across the Murray Mouth and along the Encounter Bay coast towards Victor Harbor. He made a fishing ground at Middleton by throwing a huge tree into the sea to make a seaweed bed. Here he hunted and killed a seal; its dying gasps can still be heard among the rocks. At Port Elliot, he camped and fished again, without seeing a sign of his wives. He became angry and threw his spear into the sea at Victor Harbour, creating the islands there.
Finally, after resting in a giant granite shade-shelter on Granite Island (Kaike), Ngurunderi heard his wives laughing and playing in the water near King's Beach. He hurled his club to the ground, creating the Bluff (Longkuwar), and strode after them.
His wives fled along the beach in terror until they reached Cape Jervis. At this time, Kangaroo Island was still connected to the mainland, and the two women began to hurry across to it. Ngurunderi had arrived at Cape Jervis though, and seeing his wives still fleeing from him, he called out in a voice of thunder for the waters to rise. The women were swept from their path by huge waves and were soon drowned. They became the rocky Islands known now as The Pages.
Ngurunderi knew that it was time for him to enter the spirit world. He crossed to Kangaroo Island and travelled to its western end. After first throwing his spears into the sea, he dived in, before rising to become a star in the Milky Way.